Some evenings, after his last happy guests have gone home, Turkish-born chef Yusef Alptekin lingers in the pretty courtyard of the Olive Branch restaurant and thinks of his home in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir. The space off Front Street overlooks Mitchell Park and its idyllic bay harbor, where white boats gleam in the sun. “After I close the restaurant I just sit outside all night, watching the moon, the water, the boats,” the soft-spoken Alptekin says dreamily. “This spot reminds me of Izmir more than anywhere.”
The name Olive Branch is fitting. A symbol of peace or victory, it’s a metaphor for how Greenport lured Alptekin while he was still living in Massachusetts, designing restaurants and training chefs and staff in Turkish/Mediterranean cooking. On a first-time visit to Greenport one summer, Alptekin’s friend showed him three retail parcels, badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy. “I didn’t know anything about Greenport, but I saw a lot of activity in bars and small-plate restaurants,” he says. “I saw an opportunity for a traditional restaurant. The landlord knew I was a chef, and it just went from there.”
With determination and drive, Alptekin and his wife, Michelle (an American neighbor he met while living in Massachusetts), relocated to Greenport. They began the arduous journey of gut renovating and designing the spaces themselves, creating the restaurant, and navigating the labyrinth of town permits. Yusef proved equally adept at painting wall murals and building furnishings as at crafting recipes. “Cooking is his trade, but he actually has a master’s degree in art,” says Michelle, a trained bookkeeper who handles the back-of-house.
Despite his impressive work ethic, Yusef attributes his passion for restaurants to his disobedient spirit. “Back in Turkey, I was a really bad kid,” he says with a mischievous grin. “When I was 10, my dad sent me to work in my uncle’s restaurant to straighten me out!” He went from dishwasher to prep cook over the years, learning to love the chaos of the kitchen.
He later traveled the world as an army cook for 15 years — observing, learning, tasting. “I’ve worked in 26 different countries, and all that training has been life training,” he says.
The Turkish Empire ruled areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Northern Africa for centuries, he explains, so Turkish food is a blend of Greek, Roman, and Ottoman influences.
Olive Branch initially had a separate café/marketplace with imported Turkish products, but the Alptekins just turned it into a private dining and event space that spills out into the courtyard. “One thing we learned was that people like their cocktails!” laughs Michelle. “Especially on vacation or coming off their boats.”
The courtyard offers plentiful space for outdoor dining, with Turkish accent pillows for vibe and comfort. Three days a week, the courtyard features live music from local musicians so customers can hang out, grab a drink, chat with Yusef and Michelle or just watch the town walk by.
The Mediterranean Diet
The “clean eating” Mediterranean diet is consistently voted the healthiest, defined by lots of fish, fresh herbs, and lots of olive oil (don’t even think about asking for butter on your bread). It’s all about quality ingredients, with herbs grown right in the courtyard. Imported Turkish wines — white, red, and sparkling — add an authentic twist, especially to customers unfamiliar with the region.
“We use the best products, both Turkish and local,” says Alptekin. “Our customer is more food conscious than price conscious.” Another signature is letting the food speak for itself, and not overpowering it with sauce. “I’m cooking in my mother’s style. I don’t marinate meat or fish. Lamb is a rich meat; all it needs is some oregano and salt. If you order fish, I want you to taste the fish, not a sauce.”
Olive Branch serves traditional Turkish and Mediterranean dishes, but Alptekin tweaks them slightly to suit the American palate. “Turks tend to really overcook their vegetables for a really tender texture, but I’m not cooking well-done here,” he says.
Fresh fish is a staple in Turkey and at Olive Branch. “Ninety percent of the time we have fresh fish every day,” the chef says. Branzino is flown in daily on Turkish Airlines. Grilled meat kebabs are a natural staple and the lamb, beef, and chicken gyros are sliced off the rotisseries and all homemade, never frozen. A large Branzino fish is grilled whole, then deboned and served tableside, large enough for two.
Another signature is octopus, served tender and grilled, garnished with vegetables and grilled pineapple. While Mediterranean fishermen in Greece or Turkey smash octopi on seashore rocks or piers to tenderize it, Alptekin prefers to massage them himself in the evening, something that brings teasing from his wife: “The octopus gets the massage, not me!”
Lamb shish kebab is a house favorite, balanced with tomato, red onion, greens, and white sauce. Kofte kebab is another Turkish specialty, with ground beef, onion, red pepper, tomato, and bread crumbs, served with jasmine rice and grilled vegetables.
Vegetables are a surprising staple, as one might think of Turkey’s affinity for meat and fish. “If you eat Turkish food, you’re always eating three, four, five vegetables at the same time,” says Alptekin. “It’s all very healthy and natural.” Cold vegetable appetizers include favorites like baked carrots, roasted eggplant, hummus, and haydari (labneh yogurt, dried mint, garlic, and olive oil).
After the meal, choose Turkish coffee for an authentic experience. Served in pretty patterned demitasse cups, the strong coffee is made from finely ground coffee beans that will need some time to settle before you sip. Choose sugar or no sugar, but know that if you ask for milk or cream, Alptekin will give you a shake of the head. Black it is. Pair it with a traditional sweet dessert like baklava or kadayifi, both featuring dough mixed with walnuts, butter, and simple syrup. Glasses with the Mediterranean cobalt blue charm against the “evil eye” line the counter.
“Most people don’t know Turkish food,” says Alptekin, and he is more than happy to introduce them to it. He hasn’t been back to Turkey in 15 years, so the more he can re-create his palate, the happier he is. His wife reaps the benefits, too. “When we first met, I cooked for him. I didn’t know he was a chef!” she says. “But the last time I cooked was the night I said ‘I do.”